Henry James was a true cosmopolite. He was a citizen of the world, and moved freely in and out of drawing rooms in Europe, England and America. He was perhaps more at home in Europe than he was in America, but the roots of his life belong to the American continent. Thus, with few exceptions, most of his works deal with some type of confrontation between an American and a European.
Henry James was born in New York in 1843. His father, Henry James, Sr., had inherited a considerable sum of money, and spent his time in leisured pursuit of theology and philosophy. The father often wrote essays and treatises on aspects of religion and philosophy and developed a certain degree of mysticism. Among the guests in the James’ household were some of the most famous minds of the mid-nineteenth century. Henry James was able to hear his father converse with people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, George Ripley. The father was insistent that his children learn to approach life as widely as possible.
In the strictest sense of the word, Henry James had no formal education. As a youth, he had private tutors. Then in his twelfth year, his father took the entire family to Europe where they moved freely from Switzerland to France to Germany in pursuit of stimulating conversation and intellectual ideas. The world of Europe left an everlasting impression on the young Henry James. He was ultimately to return and make his home in Europe.
When the family returned from Europe, the elder James decided to settle in New England. He chose Cambridge because this was the center of American intellectual thought. Many of the writers of Cambridge, Boston, and nearby Concord, where Emerson and Thoreau lived, were often visitors in the James household. It was here in Boston where James met the first great influence on his literary career. He established a close friendship with William Dean Howells, who as editor of one of America’s leading magazines was able to help James in his early efforts to write and publish.
In Boston, Henry James enrolled briefly in the Harvard law school, but soon resigned to devote himself to writing. His older brother, the most famous philosopher and psychologist America has yet produced, was also a student at Harvard, where he remained after graduation to become one of the most famous lecturers in America.
By the late 1860s, James had done some reviewing and had sold one work of fiction to The Atlantic Monthly. He also returned to Europe on his own to see the continent as an adult. He returned again to Cambridge and New York in the hope of continuing his literary career. But he gradually came to the realization that Europe was more suitable for his writings. Thus, in 1876, when he was in his thirty-third year, James made the momentous decision to take up residence in Europe. And with the exception of short trips to various parts of the world, he lived the rest of his life in and near London. Until 1915, he retained his American citizenship, but when World War I broke out, he became a naturalized citizen of England as a protest over America’s failure to enter the war against Germany.
James’ life and background were ideally suited for the development of his artistic temperament. Even though he was not terribly wealthy, he did have enough independent money of his own to allow him to live a leisured life. His father’s house provided all the intellectual stimulation he needed. His father’s visitors were the most prominent artists of the day, and James was able to follow the latest literary trends. In his travels, he moved in the best society of two continents and came into contact with a large variety of ideas.
With the above life, it is natural that James’ novels are concerned with a society of people who are interested in subtle ideas and subtle refinements. There are no really poor people in his novels. He wrote about people who had enough money to allow them to develop and refine their higher natures. His novels develop with a deliberate slowness and conscientious refinement. Many critics and readers resent the deliberate withholding of information and the slow development found in the Jamesian novel, but James’ life was lived with a high degree of leisure and refinement. And finally, James was the first American suited to develop the theme of the American in Europe. By the time he made his decision to settle in Europe, he had made several trips there and had lived and attended school in several parts of Europe. Thus, the subject matter of most of James’ works is about an American of some degree of innocence meeting or becoming involved with some European of experience.
But in spite of his decision to live in Europe, James remained essentially American in his sympathies. His greatest characters (or central characters) are almost always Americans. But at the same time, some of his most unpleasant characters are also Americans. But the important thing is that the characters who change, mature, and achieve an element of greatness are almost always Americans.